University of Oulu

Lehtonen, J., & Helanterä, H. (2020). Superorganismal anisogamy: queen–male dimorphism in eusocial insects. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 287(1928), 20200635.

Superorganismal anisogamy : queen–male dimorphism in eusocial insects

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Author: Lehtonen, Jussi1; Helanterä, Heikki2
Organizations: 1Faculty of Science, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia
2Ecology and Genetics Research Unit, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
Format: article
Version: published version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 0.4 MB)
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Language: English
Published: The Royal Society, 2020
Publish Date: 2020-10-13


Colonies of insects such as ants and honeybees are commonly viewed as ‘superorganisms’, with division of labour between reproductive ‘germline-like’ queens and males and ‘somatic’ workers. On this view, properties of the superorganismal colony are comparable with those of solitary organisms to such an extent that the colony itself can be viewed as a unit analogous to an organism. Thus, the concept of a superorganism can be useful as a guide to thinking about life history and allocation traits of colonies as a whole. A pattern that seems to reoccur in insects with superorganismal societies is size dimorphism between queens and males, where queens tend to be larger than males. It has been proposed that this is analogous to the phenomenon of anisogamy at the level of gametes in organisms with separate sexes; more specifically, it is suggested that this caste dimorphism may have evolved via similar selection pressures as gamete dimorphism arises in the ‘gamete competition’ theory for the evolution of anisogamy. In this analogy, queens are analogous to female gametes, males are analogous to male gametes, and colony survival is analogous to zygote survival in gamete competition theory. Here, we explore if this question can be taken beyond an analogy, and whether a mathematical model at the superorganism level, analogous to gamete competition at the organism level, may explain the caste dimorphism seen in superorganismal insects. We find that the central theoretical idea holds, but that there are also significant differences between the way this generalized ‘propagule competition’ theory operates at the levels of solitary organisms and superorganisms. In particular, we find that the theory can explain superorganismal caste dimorphism, but compared with anisogamy evolution, a central coevolutionary link is broken, making the requirements for the theory to work less stringent than those found for the evolution of anisogamy.

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Series: Proceedings of the Royal Society. B, Biological sciences
ISSN: 0962-8452
ISSN-E: 1471-2954
ISSN-L: 0962-8452
Volume: 287
Issue: 1928
DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2020.0635
Type of Publication: A1 Journal article – refereed
Field of Science: 1181 Ecology, evolutionary biology
Funding: J.L. is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award (project no. DE180100526) from the Australian Government. H.H. has been funded by the Kone Foundation.
Dataset Reference: Electronic supplementary material is available online at
Copyright information: © 2020 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.